Tag Archive: review

Dec 31 2019

Review of the year: 2019

My blogging this year has been entirely book reviews, you can see a list on the index page. I still find blogging a useful discipline to go with my non-fiction reading but my readership is so low there seems little point in writing other things for a wider audience.

A number of the books I reviewed related to music, I feel this is cheating a bit on the book reviewing front since these are typically teaching books which are more guided exercises than prose. I also read Ian S. Port’s book The Birth of Loud which is about the origins of the electric guitar from the point of view of Leo Fender and Les Paul. The music books are reflected by an increased collection of musical instruments in the household, we started the year with my electric guitar and electric and acoustic guitars for Thomas. We have since gained a bass guitar, for Sharon; a ukulele, for travel; an electric drum kit; an acoustic guitar for me (it’s very pretty – a Fender Newporter, pictured below); and for Christmas a keyboard for the family.

guitar

To learn to drum I got the Melodics app, which plugs into the drum kit and gives direct feedback as to whether I was hitting the right thing at the right time. I found this really usefully but discovered as a result that my guitar playing involved a lot of pausing for thought between passages, so I’ve started using Youcisian for guitar which has similar feedback functionality. The musical year finished with us getting a family present of a keyboard, and now I discover the theoretical side of music is so much easier on a keyboard – on a guitar the notes wrap across the fret board so you can access a couple of octaves with one hand in one place. This is convenient but it means note positions are not as obvious as on a keyboard where everything is laid out in a nice straight line.

Beyond music my reading has been quite eclectic this year. I started with Mapping Society on the use of maps to communicate data about society, moved on to a biography of Hedy Lamarr the Hollywood star who patented the frequency hopping method for secure communications. I went through a spell of reading more work relevant books – a couple of books on JavaScript, a book on marketing and one on international culture and how it impacts business interactions, and a book on rapid prototyping in business. I read several fairly academic history books, Higher and Colder on extreme physiology experiments on Everest and at the poles, Gods and Robots about representations of robots and similar in Greek and other mythology and Empires of Knowledge about some of the correspondents in the Republic of Letters. I also read the sumptuously illustrated catalogue of the Matthew Boulton exhibition. I read a couple of more data science oriented books (Designing Data Intensive Applications and Deep learning with Python). Angela Saini’s book Superior, on race science was a highlight. Returning to my roots I also read Lost in Math by Sabine Hossenfelder which is about how theoretical physics has lost itself in a search for mathematical beauty.

This years holiday was in Benllech once again, only a short drive for us from Chester. Thomas has been learning to swim, and Sharon and Thomas rather enthusiastically flung themselves into the chilly Irish Sea. To be fair the weather wasn’t too bad, we had a couple of really warm days – I got sunburnt feet – and only a couple of heavy downpours in parts of the day when it didn’t matter.

familybenllech _beach

Politics has been largely miserable over the last year, Brexit failed to happen several times through the year but only after it felt we had been brought to the brink of crashing out of the EU with no deal which I found stressful, and now we have a Tory government with a significant majority led by someone unsuited to run a whelk stall which will take us out of the EU, probably as a cliff edge towards the end of the year. I suspect the General Election was won in part because voters are fed up with Brexit paralysis, even those that wish to remain were probably not greatly enthused by the prospect of a second referendum which had every sign of being as tightly contested as the first.

On the positive side, my own team, the Liberal Democrats, has seen a general rise in its fortunes. We have been consistently taking council seats from Labour and Tory, with gains considerably above expectations in the May elections. In the unexpected EU elections in the summer the Liberal Democrats polled second with 19.6% of the vote with only the Brexit Party ahead of them, I tend to see EU elections as indicative of general support in the absence of the First Past the Post system. In parliament we saw mixed fortunes, we increased the number of MPs by defection and by-election to 21, then dropped back to 11 seats in the December General Election, losing our leader Jo Swinson in the process. This is despite growing our vote share from 7.4% to 11.6%, you’ve got to love the First Past the Post system!

Ever keen to be forced to do new things by apps, I’ve started learning Arabic in Duolingo, I have to admit this is largely due to finding Arabic script attractive. I suspect I cheat quite a lot by using minimal pattern matching rather than full understanding the language to get some answers right.

Dec 31 2018

Review of the year: 2018

My reading rate is somewhat reduced this year, 26 books covering both fiction and non-fiction in 2018 compared to 34 and 32 in the two previous years. In the autumn, Thomas and I started learning to play the guitar, Thomas taking lessons at school, me working independently – maybe this is what distracted me from reading. I wrote a blog post on this.

Anyway, to the books. I started the year with a Christmas Extravaganza – short reviews of books on walking, maps, birds, Vermeer and Caneletto. I read some work related books on machine learning, data strategy, and behavioural marketing. This last one was an attempt to read about something a bit different from my usual data science/technology area of interest but it turns out that behavioural marketing is marketing targeted using data which is already my patch. Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve, on the statistically analysis of word frequency distributions, felt like it fitted this category of work-like books.

A couple of the books were quite long: The Devil’s Doctor – Philip Ball’s biography of Paracelsus and The Silk Roads, by Peter Frankopan. Frankopan’s book is a history of the world viewed through the lens of the overland route to China from Europe which has it’s centre of gravity in the Middle East. I was a bit surprised when this coverage came all the way up to the present day. Lucy Inglis’ book Milk of Paradise, on opium and its derivatives, morphine and heroin, had a similar geographic coverage to Frankopan’s book with trade routes passing through the Middle East to China and Asia.

William Armstrong: Magician of the North by Henrietta Heald and Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis by Kim Todd were biographies of individuals. Armstrong was a Victorian industrialist famous for his house, Cragside, which was the first to be lit with electricity. Merian was a naturalist and illustrator in the 17th century, she is better known outside the UK – clearly a very remarkable woman. These days I prefer ensemble biographies such as The Philosophical Breakfast Club by Laura J. Snyder which covers William Whewell (pronounced: who-ell), Charles Babbage, Richard Jones and John Herschel, and were involved in the reform of British science in the 19th century. Sentimental Savants by Meghan K. Roberts follows the move from savants as monastic figures into men embedded in families in 18th and 19th century France. What’s your type? by Merve Emre finished the year with a biography of Katherine Myers and her daughter Isabel Briggs-Myers who created the Myers-Briggs Personality Test.

Other Minds by Peter Godfrey Smith is possibly my favourite book of the year, it is the story of thinking and octopuses. Godfrey-Smith’s idea is to understanding thinking better by studying the most radically different thinkers he could find.

Inferior by Angela Saini is the story of scientific studies of women. It is a rather sorry tale of men clearly desperate to find biological basis as to how women are inferior whilst ignoring societal factors. I’m still endeavouring to read more books by women. For most non-fiction and fiction this is no hardship, niche technical books present a challenge since the number of women authors in this area is close to zero.

Finally, we have The Anatomy of Colour by Patrick Baty, a history of paint and interior decoration. Aside from the outright art books, definitely the most beautiful book of the year.

This year we went on holiday to Westendorf in Austria, Thomas’s first trip abroad. We know Westendorf well – we’ve skied there several times and been once in the summer. We went with my mum, who has been going so long the tourist office gave her a “long service” award this time around! The weather in Westendorf was scorching, much like the UK had been for a chunk of the summer. Fortunately the bedrooms in our apartment were in the basement which was nice and cool.

westendorf

On the domestic front, we have had our driveway replaced with resin-bound gravel. Probably the largest construction undertaking that we’ve done, approaching 15 years after moving in we finally got around to replacing the rather uneven gravel and original concrete slabs at the front of the house. It took rather longer than expected, most likely due to the installers discovering that the existing driveways and paths were sitting on sand and other uncompacted material rather than any sort of properly made base. Having completed the driveway, the front garden and fences looked a bit tatty too so we got those fixed too. All it requires now is for Mrs H to get more plants. If you want to enjoy the whole process in pictorial form, there is an album (here). A before and after are shown below.

before

driveway

On a related note: we paid off our mortgage!

Politically I’m in limbo, Brexit  has deeply upset me – it sees my friends and colleagues from other EU nations treated as second class citizens, cast into Kafka-esque Home Office procedures. The future for my son seems less open and outward looking, with reduced opportunities. I gave up listening to the Radio 4 Today programme after getting on for 30 years regular listening. Some of this is specifically to do with the Today programme: John Humphreys has long struck me as greatly over-rated, over-paid, and unprepared – getting by on bluster. More recently outright brexity. More widely the BBC uses its requirement for “balance” as cover. It gets regularly reprimanded by the regulator for bringing in Nigel Lawson to counter climate change scientists. Question Time panels regularly comprise 3 brexiters and possibly one remainer, if that. Its headline news programmes have ignored serious stories about the Leave campaign, or even actively prompted the Leave side.

I’m looking forward to more learning guitar in 2019, more reading and hopefully better mental health. Brexit will have either happened or not happened fairly shortly.

Dec 26 2017

Review of the year: 2017

As I finish work for the year, and we await Christmas Day, it is time for me to start writing my “Review of the year”. This is a somewhat partial view of the world, as seen through the pages of my blog which these days is almost entirely book reviews, you can see a list of my blog posts for the year here. My Goodreads account tells me I have read 32 books this year.

Linked to reading, I wrote a post on Women Writers – I’ve been making an effort to read more books written by women over the last couple of years. This has worked out really well for my fiction reading, where I’ve found some new sci-fi authors to enjoy, and some, like Ursula Le Guin who have been around a while. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is certainly in contention for my favourite novel ever. On non-fiction I’ve not had as much success – a chunk of my non-fiction reading is in technology and the number of women published in this area is tiny. I found the acknowledgements section of books by men a useful place to find women to follow on twitter.

This year I read Pandora’s Breeches by Patricia Fara – about women in science from about 1600 to 1850. I also read Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, about the Africa-American women who worked as “human computers” for the organisation which was to become NASA. I think this told me more about being an African-American than being a woman. I hadn’t appreciated previously the sheer effort and determination required for African-Americans to progress, changing the laws to end legally-sanctioned discrimination was simply the first step (resisted at every turn by white supremacists).

I read some fairly academic history of science too, Inventing Temperature and Leviathan and the air-pump. Inventing Temperature is about the history of the measurement of temperature. Temperature is important to most physical scientists in one way or another, perhaps more so for ones like I once was. This book covers the less-told history, and re-surfaces some of the assumptions that these days are no longer taught or certainly don’t stick in the mind.  Leviathan and the air-pump is about the foundation of the experimental method as it is (roughly) seen today. I liked these two books because they didn’t follow the “great man” narrative which is what you get from reading scientific biographies – a much more common genre in the wider history of science.

I also read a few books on the history of Chester, following on from reading about Roman Chester last year. Two things struck me in this, one was the image of post-Roman Britons living in the ruins of the Roman occupation. Evidence from this period immediately following the Roman occupation, in Chester it amounts to a thin dark layer of material in the Roman barracks which could well be pigeon droppings! The second stand out was the fact that Chester’s mint/money making operation was bigger than London’s in the 9th century. I was also interested in the “Pentice” a curious timber structure attached to the St Peter’s church by the cross in the centre of town that appears to have been Chester’s administrative centre since the medieval period (it was demolished in the early 19th century).

In news outside the world of books, we had an election in the UK, the result was a bit of a surprise but we can probably agree we are not in a great position now politically with a weak government steadfastly refusing to even countenance ending the Brexit process and an official “opposition” in the Labour Party supporting them in this.

Surprise hit of the year was the ARK exhibition of sculpture at Chester Cathedral. I wouldn’t describe myself as a connoisseur of art, particularly not sculpture but I loved this exhibition. The exhibits were scattered through the cathedral and its grounds. A life-sized ceramic horse, and three very large egg-shaped objects making a very public sign of what lay within. It turns out that sculpture works really well in an old cathedral, there are so many shapes and textures to pick up on. This picture encapsulates it for me:

On the technology front I read about Scala, I’ve also wrote a post about setting up my work PC to use Scala which requires a bit of wrangling. I read about behaviour driven testing, and the potential downsides of data science from a social point of view and game theory.

A final mention goes to Ed Yong’s “I contain multitudes”, one of the first books I read this year, which is all about the interaction between microbes and the hosts they live with – including you and me. Possibly this is my favourite book of the year, but looking down the list I don’t think there was any book I regretted reading and a fair few of them were thoroughly excellent.

No holiday post this year, we were back in Portinscale, on the outskirts of Keswick again – notable achievement: getting Thomas (5) up several peaks – starting with Cat Bells! Embarrassment prevents from writing much about my Pokemon Go obsession, in my defence I will say that it is educational for Thomas and encourages him to walk places!

Dec 29 2016

Review of the year: 2016

Another year passes and once more it is time to write the annual review of my blogging. I no longer have an hour and a half or so of commuting on the train everyday, so I thought my reading rate might have dropped. However, I see in the last year I have 21 book reviews on my blog as opposed to 22 last year. As usual my reading is split between technical books, the history of science and various odds and ends.

In terms of technical books, Pro Git by Scott Chacon and Ben Straub and Test-driven Development with Python by Harry J.W. Percival probably had the biggest impact on me in terms of the way I did my job. But Beautiful Javascript edited by Anton Kovalyov was the most thought provoking, it is an edited collection of the thoughts of a set of skilled Javascript developers. Lab Girl by Hope Jahren is an autobiography describing how it is to be a scientist, it is beautifully written. Maphead by Ken Jennings is about those obsessed with maps rather than science. Of the more directly science-related books I think The Invention of Science by David Wootton was the best in terms of provoking thought, it’s also very readable. The Invention covers the Scientific Revolution from 1500-1700 in terms of the language available to and used by its practitioners.

A second contender for the “sweeping overview” award goes to A New History of Life by Peter D. Ward and Joe Kirschvink which focuses particularly on the work over the last 20 years on the very earliest life on earth. I read some economic history in the form of The Honourable Company by John Keay (about the East India Company) and the more general The Company by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. I also read about the Romans, in the form of Mary Beard’s SPQR which is a history of ancient Rome, and Roman Chester by David J.P. Mason which is about my home city.

You can see all I’ve read on Goodreads. I don’t blog about my fiction reading, I think because for me blogging is mostly about reminding myself about facts and ideas I’ve read about and I struggle to see how I’d do that with fiction. Perhaps I should try. In fiction, I’ve been making some effort to read books not written by middle aged white men which has been rewarding.

This year’s holiday was to Benllech on the isle of Anglesey, an embarrassingly short drive from home – our holiday bungalow had leaflets describing attractions in our home city! We took in a number of castles, the beach on a daily basis and the Anglesey Sea Zoo. The photo at the top is from Amlwch which was once port to the Copper Mountain.

The year has been momentous politically with Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as leader of the Labour Party, the Leave vote in the EU referendum, David Cameron stepping down as Prime Minister and then leaving parliament, Theresa May taking over as Prime Minister and the election of Donald Trump as president in the US. I haven’t written much about all of these things. I wrote a blog post shortly before the EU referendum, putting out my reasons for voting Remain. I accidently wrote that I thought Leave would win – which was strangely prophetic. In the aftermath of the vote I was dazed and disturbed, much as I thought I would be. I half wrote many blog posts after the vote but the only one I published was on the unsuitability of Boris Johnson for pretty much anything, let alone the delicate role of Foreign Secretary.

Things are looking up a little for my party, the Liberal Democrats, who seem the only ones prepared to oppose the government over their Brexit “plans”, and the only ones prepared to vote against the “Snooper’s Charter”. We’re the only ones making significant gains in local elections and have made significant showings in Westminster by-elections, getting a 23.5% swing in Witney and winning Richmond Park with a 30.4% swing. The Labour party seems to be marching itself into the wilderness with considerable enthusiasm.

David Laws’ Coalition was my only political reading of the year.

I’ve written a couple of times on exercise related things: The Running Man on my newfound enthusiasm for running. Since writing I have a fancier running watch (a Garmin Forerunner 235), I read Bob Glover’s The Runner’s Handbook and decided I had to have a heart rate monitor. As it was I don’t pay a huge amount of attention to the heart rate monitor but it is nice that the GPS is ready to go by the time I reach the end of my walk up the drive rather than five minutes later. I also wrote about cycling to work in Ride, as others struggle to find parking at work I have a 12 space bike shed mostly to myself (particularly in the winter)!

I’ve been trying out Headspace recently which is an app for guided meditation, it seems helpful for the gloomy winter. I realise that some of the elements of meditation I used to get from our long walks in the country. 

Work has been fun, I have built something which is now being sold to customers, and I made something of an impact with my sequinned jacket and willingness to dance the night away at the office Christmas party. 

Dec 31 2015

Review of the year: 2015

Another year comes to an end and it time to write my annual review. As usual my blog has been a mixture, with book reviews the most frequent item. I also wrote a bit about politics and some technology blog posts. You can see a list of my posts this year on the index page. My technology blog posts are about programming, and the tools that go with it – designed as much to remind me of how I did things as anything else.

My most read blog post this year was a technical one on setting up Docker to work on a Windows 10 PC – it appears to have gone out in an email to the whole Docker community. For the non-technical reader, Docker is like a little pop up workshop which a programmer can take with them wherever they go, all their familiar tools will be found in their Docker container. It makes sharing the development of software, and deploying it different places, much easier. 

Actually my most read blog post this year was the review of my telescope, which I wrote a few years ago – it clearly has enduring appeal! Sadly, I haven’t made much use of my telescope recently but I did reuse my experience to photograph the partial eclipse, visible in north west England in March. I took a whole pile of photographs and wrote a short blog post. It is a montage of my eclipse photos which graces the top of this post. I think the surprising thing for me was how long the whole thing took.

In book reading there was a mixture of technical books which I read in relation to my work, and because I am interested. My favourite of these was High Performance Python by Micha Gorelick and Ian Ozsvald, which lead me to thinking more deeply about my favoured programming language. I read a number of books relating to the history of science. The Values of Precision by edited by M. Norton Wise stood out – this was an edited collection about the evolution of precision in the sciences since population studies in pre-Revolutionary France. Many of the themes spoke directly to my experience as a scientist, and it was interesting to read about them from the point of view of historians. Andrea Wulf’s biography of Alexander von Humboldt was also very good. 

There was a General Election this year, which led to a little blogging on my part and then substantial trauma (as a Liberal Democrat). I stood for the local council in the “Chester Villages” ward, where I beat UKIP and the Greens (full results here), sadly the Chester Liberal Democrats lost their only seat on the Cheshire West and Chester Council.

I did a couple of little technical projects for my own interest over the year. I made my London Underground – Can I walk it? tool which helps the user decide whether to walk between London Underground stations, the distance between them often being surprisingly short in the central part of London. The distinguishing features of this tool is that it is dynamic, and covers walking distances which are not just nearest neighbour of the current line. You can find the website here. This little project incorporated a number of bits of technology I’d learnt about over the past few years, and featured help from David Hughes on the design side – you can see the result bellow.

image

My second project was looking at the recently released LIDAR data from the Environment Agency, I wrote about it here. LIDAR is a laser technique for determining the height of the land surface (or buildings, if they are in the way) to a high resolution – typically 1 metre but down to 25cm in some places. The data cover about 85% of England. The Environment Agency use the data to help plan flood and coastal defences, amongst other applications. I had fun overlaying the LIDAR imagery onto maps, and rendering it in 3D, below you can see St Paul’s cathedral rendered in 3D.

I changed job in the Autumn, moving from ScraperWiki in Liverpool to GB Group in Chester. In my new job I’m spending my days playing with data, and attending virtually no meetings – so all good there! Also my commute to work is a 25 minute cycle which I really enjoy. But I really value the experience I got at ScraperWiki. As a startup with an open source mentally I learnt lots of new things and could talk about them. I also got to work with some really interesting customers. It brought home to me how difficult it is to make a business work, it’s not enough just to do something clever – somebody has to pay you enough to do it – and that’s actually the really hard part.

I wrote a now obligatory holiday blog post. We stayed in Portinscale, just outside Keswick for our holiday at a time when the weather was rather better. The highlight of the trip for me was the Threlkeld Mining Museum, a place where older men collect old mining equipment for their entertainment and that of small children. Although Allan Bank in Grasmere was a close second, Allan Bank is a laid back hippy commune style National Trust property. Below you can see a view of Derwent Water to Catbells from Keswick.

A couple of things I haven’t blogged about: I started running in May and since then I’ve gone from running 5km in 34 minutes to 5km in 24 minutes, I’ve also lost 10kg. I should probably write a blog about this, since it involves data collection. There are some technical bits and pieces I’d quite like to write about (Python modules and sqlite) either because I use them so often or they’ve turned out to be useful. The other thing I haven’t written about is my CBT.

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